The last time I used the word fine was when my boss commented that I seemed off and not very chatty. I started off with some complete bullshit, veered into honesty, then closed with something about not sleeping enough and closed my rambling with, “…but I’ll be fine!” He said something along the lines of “uhhhh allright, just thought I’d ask,” and scampered off to resume working.
I was not fine, but I realized partway through my explanation that he asked but maybe wasn’t ready for a real answer. Besides, it’s not like I was going to say, “I’m unhappy about the amount of unpaid work I’m doing and I’m anxious about not knowing what I’m doing next or where I’m going, so yeah I’m a little on edge!!!!”
I think if you use the word fine to describe how you are feeling in the present moment, it often carries subtext: you are not fine, you don’t know how you’re doing so you use fine as a default, or you don’t want to get into it.
How’s your job?
How’s your wife?
How was your date?
The dictionary defines fine as being, “in a satisfactory or pleasing manner.” But when was the last time you used the word fine and it actually reflected that definition?
I think we use this word so much for a few reasons.
- We often have no idea how we are actually feeling, and don’t have the vocabulary to voice these feelings.
- We don’t want to speak our truth for fear of making things awkward, being misunderstood, being invalidated, overloading someone and a million other reasons.
While being able to correctly identify the emotion you are feeling seems easy, in theory, in practice most of us are pretty terrible at it. My quick and dirty all-encompassing definition of emotional literacy is being able to understand, communicate, manage and accept our emotions. This goes beyond a four letter word and gets into the fact that we often don’t even have the language to express ourselves.
I only caught wind of this skillset when I listened to Brené Brown’s podcast episode with Dr. Marc Brackett where they discuss ‘permission to feel.’
We are not taught the value of emotional literacy so it’s no wonder we are f*cked and using the word fine so much. Between hurtling through modern life so fast we barely stop to check in with ourselves and being taught to suppress our true feelings, it’s a pretty bad recipe for being able to read our internal cues. This stuff isn’t my wheelhouse, and I won’t pretend I can teach you how to master emotional literacy myself…especially since I’m learning alongside you. HOWEVER, you can start by watching this slightly dated but still highly relevant TEDx talk where Dr. Brackett explains this subject super well, and why it’s important.
standing with your emotional dick in your hand
“How are you?” is a funny little verbal exchange that means nothing, but is used as a way to be cordial. If you answer honestly with a heartfelt, personal response, you risk the other person looking at you wide-eyed like, “Um, TMI.” If you give a one-word reply, then you’re kind of contributing to the problem.8 Ways to Respond to the Worst Small Talk Questions, theeverygirl.com
So let’s say you ask your coworker how they are doing in passing, and instead of saying fine, they hit you with a big old truth bomb that their dog died and their mom has cancer and they are super depressed. Unfortunately, their honesty is extremely poorly timed: You have a meeting you have to make it to in five minutes so you say sorry and run away, which works well because you have no idea what to say to comfort them. Meanwhile, that person is standing there with their emotional dick in their hand wondering why they even bothered opening up at all.
What I just described happens in life ALL THE TIME. I look back and think of all the times I was so wrapped up in my own shit that when someone hit me with how they were really feeling and I immediately thought, “I don’t have time to unpack this,” or “oh god what do I say so I don’t sound like an insensitive asshole.” I’m learning that it isn’t about the amount of time you spend comforting someone or the exactitude of your language. Sometimes we all just wanna say shit out loud and be validated.
However, if something is over your head you can also just say so! You’re not a therapist, and maybe they do need professional help. Why not ask?
We often miss these opportunities for connection because both parties are so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing in that moment. I get it, both people end up a little vulnerable and the situation I described sounds pretty terrible. But if you genuinely trust the person you have the urge to share with, I think you’re safe to avoid using the word fine if you’re far from it.
Using the word fine = no vulnerability = no growth.
If you are the person someone is choosing to share their true feelings with, all I can tell you is to be as present as you can for them in that moment. Saying exactly the right thing doesn’t always matter, but making eye contact and making an effort to validate them is a good place to start. For example, if someone starts opening up then gets scared and back peddles with “…but it’ll all be fine!” and forces a smile. At the very least, tell them you understand how they’re feeling, and remind them they aren’t alone.
Also, this is sort of a sidebar, but if you know you can’t hold space for someone there are thousands of things you can ask that are still courteous and and interesting instead of ‘how are you?’ LET’S MAKE LIFE MORE GENUINE AND INTERESTING, FRIENDS.
All I ask
To start, I challenge you to banish this word from your vocab and upgrade for some words that really reflect what’s going on inside you. Get out of autopilot, and the next time someone asks you how you are – stop to actually get present and consider their question.
If you are in a place where you are really disconnected from your own emotions, consider looking a bit more about emotional literacy! Therapy really helped me learn this skill, but I had to practice it a ton before I started to have a hot clue about what I was feeling. Sometimes naming your emotions, even if it’s just on paper in a journal or jotted down in a note on your phone, is incredibly validating. The final step of being able to acknowledge your feelings – good or bad – without judging them is the tough bit. That’s some yoda shit that takes practice. Be patient.
Finally, next time you suspect that you are on the receiving end of a dis-genuine use of the word fine, feel free to tell that person that even if they aren’t fine, that’s ok too. Hugs help…just make sure to ask for consent first (yes, even for hugs, think of it as a sign of respect!). 🙂
Fine doesn’t do us any favours. My hope is that we’re all going to be better than fine if we stop using fine so much.